Selection of the president. (League Position Update).
The League is beginning a second update this year, mindful that, while our concern for a direct popular vote has probably not changed, the odds of eliminating the Electoral College at the national level are minimal. Other factors that merit attention have come to influence the presidential selection process in recent years. If the League's concern is to encourage the best candidates and promote the highest participation by informed voters, we need to understand the impact of the process on those values. The focus of this article is to understand the current process and how it has changed. A second article in the next Voter will cover the pros and cons of alternative strategies to improve the process.
Today, the process of selecting the president is dominated by questions of campaign strategy and campaign finance, the role of the parties in the primaries and caucuses leading up to the convention, the role of the media and the effect of developing technologies. The presidential selection system many of us knew as children was a very different one: the parties selected their nominees when they met at convention every four years; it was covered on radio and television; and the press followed the campaign at a greater distance, without quite so much interpretation as to the strategies of the campaign. Certainly, the candidates were allowed more privacy.
It makes sense to consider how we feel about the institutions that dominate the process today. What should their roles be? What do we want our roles to be as voters? This article will focus on the longer-term issues. A short survey follows (page 10) and is intended to provide the Update Task Force a better sense of how you feel about these issues as we move forward.
While never intended in the Constitution, political parties have been with us since the first Washington Administration. From the beginning, they represented coalitions of opposing political points of view and a way of organizing the work of government in Congress. Over the years, they became critical mediating institutions that absorbed new immigrant populations into the body politic, as well as a mechanism for graft and corruption. We have decried their strengths and their weaknesses. While we may not like living with them, we worry about living without them.
The two-party system is always challenged as new issues and cleavages in the body politic emerge but it has endured, in part because our system of separated powers makes it necessary to build a coalition for governance before election. The presumption is that different voices will be heard within the parties, but there is always a need to balance the desire to allow every voice to be heard against the need to make governance possible. It is likely that we will continue to see individuals emerge during presidential campaigns to challenge the parties as long as they can muster the resources. In the current system, candidates tend to select themselves, so an independent candidacy outside the two parties would not be significantly different from a candidate who ran without public financing, except for the complications of ballot access.
We think of parties in three ways: the organized party, the party in the electorate and the party as the organizing tool in legislatures (and a link with the executive branch). Our concern here is with the first two roles. Partisan identification used to be part of our American identity (along with gender, state and religion). While it has declined, today 34 percent still identify as Democrats, 31 percent as Republicans, and 24 percent as Independents. Although independents are not as uninformed and uninvolved as they used to be, their role in selecting the president is primarily limited to the choice made by the parties at the general election. Even so, what the parties have lost is control of the presidential nominating process, an important measure of a strong party system.
Today, Americans are more evenly divided between the parties than we may have ever been before. In some cases, there is a greater distance between partisans on attitudes toward core issues (e.g., gun control, health care and choice). While that may be an improvement over the view that "there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the parties," it also means close, hard-fought elections and the probability that the outcomes will leave a bitter and cynical aftertaste in the electorate. Further, the bipartisan consensus that used to dominate foreign policy and the role of government is a victim of the intense partisanship currently dominating the scene. In that context, the selection of the president is apt to become increasingly controversial.
There is a correlation between partisanship and confidence in government. While it is not clear whether you are partisan because you have confidence, or confident because you are partisan, the bottom line is that confidence in government is a critical factor in sustai ning a healthy democracy. Nations with strong parties have higher voter turnout. There is also evidence that parties that select their own candidates put up stronger candidates because their primary interest is in winning elections. They also tend to balance their tickets by taking into account gender, race, ethnicity and other factors. We could have cheaper, shorter elections if we went back to the system where party leaders chose the nominee at a national convention, but another verity is that democracy is an ever-devolving phenomenon. We are not going back.
THE NOMINATING PROCESS
The evolution of the presidential selection process has reflected the evolution of our government, from Congress, to the parties, and--in the latter half of the 20th century--to the people. Change was prompted by scandal and shifts in power. Factions gave way to Congressional caucuses by 1800, which broke down in 1824, with division between the Congressional Caucus and state legislators. By the mid-1840s, the national nominating convention was established, allowing for broader-based party programs, and the reconciliation of personal and regional rivalries. The convention system remained strong for over a century, even though the parties themselves changed.
The Progressive Movement (1870s to 1920s) took a serious toll on party strength in its effort to replace corrupt politics with professional administration. Primaries were instituted, although most were advisory in nature. Some states repealed them between the World Wars, but interest grew again in the post-War era as candidates used them to demonstrate their electability and, more recently, as they brought money and attention to the states.
A new age of reform followed the 1968 election amid the turmoil that accompanied the Democratic convention that year. There were a series of commissions in the Democratic Party to open the process to party members at the expense of its leadership. Over time, the Party backed away from its anti-leadership approach and began providing a place for members of Congress and other important party leaders in the delegations. The Republicans never quite moved that far in the first place, but there is a tendency for the parties to reflect each other's organization.
Caucuses seemed to be a wholesome way to select a candidate: people meeting together in a room to debate the merits of the candidates whom most have met and making their decision. While valuable for those who attend--and those who get a chance to meet the candidates in the campaign period--they attract far fewer voters (10 percent of the most committed partisans, compared to 20 percent of the next most committed partisan primary voters). Those who do not participate at all in the state caucus process tend to know no more about the candidates than voters in states without a primary.
Iowa is the classic case because it is the first test in the election cycle and a small state that gives voters the opportunity to meet and weigh the candidates personally, but there are over a dozen other caucuses held in both the Republican and Democratic Parties. The attention given to candidate reaction in Iowa by the media is an important factor for at least a year before the actual caucus is held. The same is true in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary a few weeks later: they are alone on the election schedule. The fact that they are small states makes the campaigning economically feasible, but it is not politically representative of the rest of the nation. But, for 2004 there are efforts being made by other states to be first.
If a few primaries and caucuses test appeal, too many become impractical. It is expensive and gives the advantage to well-funded and well-known candidates, or those without jobs who can spend several years on the campaign trail. The campaign season lengthened to at least two years, and the costs of running for the presidency rose astronomically--from $230 million in 1984 to $1.5 billion in 2000. Candidates cannot afford to run everywhere all the time. With the choice about whether or when to hold a primary left solely to the states, the 2004 primary period will be more "front-loaded" than ever before as states rush to have a say. The race for the nomination is likely to be over before the Ides of March, although some states are considering withdrawal from the process because of budget deficits. This is true particularly in Republican-led states (that do not want a primary with an incumbent president), and is opposed by Democrats who expect a competitive race. In 1996, the Republican Party tried but failed to slow the process by giving "bonus" delegates to states holding late primaries. A rotating regional or a national primary is talked about as a possible alternative.
In theory, a long race gives voters a chance to test the mettle of presidential candidates. The reality is that whoever has the most money in the bank by December 31st of the year before the first event wins the nomination. After New Hampshire, there is no time to gain name recognition, raise funds, build an organization in every state, and shift momentum. Once the delegate count is secured, the campaigns fade in the public mind until the conventions several months later.
THE MEDIA AND THE INTERNET
The press, which always had a bias toward demonstrating its objectivity by being cynical about politicians, increased its posture of disdain after Watergate. When it comes to television, there are several factors that predominate in the declining quality of free media coverage of the presidential election, but the most important is that news shows became profitable. They are cheap to produce with a plethora of pundits to populate them, and--as entertainment--they value controversy. The emergence of 24-hour cable news helped, but the broadcast media (which reaches a far greater audience) decreased its hard news coverage of candidates enormously. What used to be 42-second sound bite is now down to under 10 seconds. The coverage they provide tends to reflect the horse race (who is ahead in the polls) and campaign strategies rather than analysis of programs being offered by the candidate. The best way for a campaign to get its message out is to buy ads (hence the increasing expense), and more and more ads tend to be negative in nature, adding to cynicism of the electoral process. How does a free society impose restraints on insults of its public figures when negative ads work?
Televised debates help as voters try to assess the candidates, looking not only for their positions on issues but also a sense of their character. Even the very limited convention coverage helps voters get a sense of who the candidates are and what the parties want to be. But as the convention has become less newsworthy, it also gets less coverage.
The Internet has become a valuable source of information about candidates for those who access it. Rather surprisingly, it has also proved an effective way to raise funds if candidates include a "contribute" button on their Web page. Many people--who never gave before--do. Resources such as LWV's DNet and SmartVoter provide critical information about voting and candidate positions, but there is a great deal we do not yet know about its impact overall. Is there a significant bias in its accessibility? How does disinformation get addressed? We do not know how it will affect the message candidates send to voters, nor voters to candidates.
Democracy is a fragile thing. There is no absolute best way; the most we can do is follow the rules on which we agree. Reforms will come in response to emerging problems. Reforms work. They do change the process, but response to a change in one area is almost unforeseeable in another. If these reforms send us reeling from one unintended consequence to another, it is our obligation to try to understand what happened and why, and consider what ought to happen next.
We saw the increase in the professionalism of campaign consultants, but we did not foresee the impact of tracking polls and negative campaign ads. There are times when the rules seem to interfere with democratic values: the 2000 election was such a case, but we accepted the legitimacy of the process in the end. Given the political divisions in the nation today, it is likely we will continue to see the rules running perilously close to the sense of legitimacy we need to sustain our political system. Our goal is to get a better grasp on what is changing, how it affects the participants in the presidential election: the candidates, the parties and the voters. Is the process really too long and too expensive? What is the impact of the new technologies? Are there ways to encourage more responsible media coverage?
Anderson, David M. and Michael Cornfield, eds., The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values, 2002.
Bibby, John F., Politics, Parties, and Elections in America (3rd Edition), 1996.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Packaging the Presidency 1996.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall and Paul Waldman, The Press Effect, 2003.
Kimberling, William C., Deputy Director, FEC Office of Election Administration. "The Electoral College," ww.fec.gov/pdf/eleccoll.pdf.
Mayer, William G., ed., In Pursuit of the White House, 1996.
Patterson, Thomas E., The Vanishing Voter 2002.
Wattenberg, Martin P., The Rise of Candidate-Centered Politics, 1991.
Witcover, Jules, No Way to Pick a President, 1999.
Xandra Kayden, senior fellow at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, heads the League's Presidential Selection Update Task Force and is LWVUS board member and LWVEF trustee.